An upcoming theme for our Endsleigh Salon book group is ‘Never Judge a Book By its Cover’. My plan is to re-read a certain book from last year that had a stunning cover but for me didn’t live up to the hype or the expectations (I know it did the opposite for many of you). The book was bought for me as a special gift and it was one I was committed to enjoying on that basis alone...maybe I try even harder when a book is given to me in that way. To no avail, I just couldn’t make it work past the things that annoyed me intensely but I will try again, different year, different mood etc.
It was Angela Harding’s distinctive and eye-catching cover that first drew me towards The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, even prompting me to create a homage piece for my Journal Quilts once I had read it, because this is a book that has left a deep and lasting impression.
Devastated by the loss of their savings and their home in a failed business investment with a friend, and with the simultaneous diagnosis of a degenerative neurological condition for Moth, the couple decided to throw any remaining caution to the wind, the South-Westerlies in fact, and walk the South West Coast Path.
'I was under the stairs when I decided to walk. In that moment, I hadn't carefully considered walking 630 miles with a rucksack on my back, I hadn't thought about how I could afford to do it, or that I'd be wild camping for nearly one hundred nights, or what I'd do afterwards. I hadn't told my partner of thirty-two years that he'd be coming with me.
Only minutes earlier hiding under the stairs had seemed a good option. The men in black began hammering on the door at 9am., but we weren't ready. We weren't ready to let go...the bailiffs moved to the back of the house.'
I’d seen the book cover hither and yon around the Internet and then saw Raynor and her husband Moth interviewed on the local news and before you could blink I had ordered and the book arrived. I started reading it at the breakfast table and didn’t lift my head until supper about two days later. I may have slept in between but it was a fitful sleep as I thought of the Winns camped on cliff tops, nursing the day’s fatigue, shivering in their lightweight sleeping bags from Tesco’s having watched the world around them eating pasties while they made do with noodles.
From its punishing beginnings the walk becomes redemptive and life-enhancing. Untrained and unfit the couple slog up and down the coast path with little clue about the potential difficulties. Maybe sometimes this is the best way to do it and sort it all out as you go along.
Sometimes maybe not...
As I read it all came back to me. Entirely different circumstances but also involving a tent and being woefully unprepared, I'm almost ashamed to repeat it...
Bookhound and I had set off to walk the Two Moors Way in August 1979. We were young, fit, keen and naive. It had been a gloriously dry summer, what could be better. We kitted ourselves out with what we thought were the right things plus the dog and off we went. The GP I worked with had warned me that the biggest danger would be adders biting the dog, so much so that he sent me off with Adrenalin and a syringe just in case (not sure what would have happened if we had got bitten). We walked seventeen miles from home onto the moor on that first day ( in new boots and carrying a bungalow each) when it started to rain...a lot...and a lot more. I’m not sure we’d even looked at the weather forecast, or was it still a bit amateurish back then. Anyway it turned into the weekend of the Fastnet disaster, a thunder and lightning storm like no other. Don’t ask me how we managed to pitch the tent ( heavy old things back in the day) or survive the storm through that night, the tent surrounded by huge moorland cattle who clearly would have liked to get in there with us.
All I could think of were the metal tent poles inviting the lightning, and to be honest I think we were lucky to get off the moor in one piece the next day. No mobile phones, the map disintegrated to pulp so we just followed a river. We were drenched with not a single dry piece of anything between us and the dog’s collar went rusty. We retreated back to home on the bus, water running in rivulets down the gangway from us and our rucksacks, licking our wounds, cursing our stupidity and Bookhound immediately joined the Dartmoor Rescue Group. There are no photos because the Instamatic was an early casualty of the rain. But at the time we had options, we could choose to go home. Raynor and Moth had no such option other than to carry in walking. But there was still much I understood about their vulnerability to the elements, the vagaries and uncertainties of where they might sleep or what they might eat.
As well as its focus on loss and the reinvention that a journey makes possible, The Salt Path is an education in what we really need from life, the meaning of home and especially homelessness and its impact on ‘ordinary’ people who find themselves in this predicament. The prejudice and misplaced judgements waiting out there become a stark reality for the couple, But above all I was impressed with the the book’s lack of bitterness. If a friend had shafted me out of my home, my savings and my livelihood I think I might have spent an inordinate amount of time plotting their demise with recourse to a virtual doll and needles if necessary ...indeed perhaps Raynor and Moth have done so (I’d like to think it wasn’t just me) but to their credit not an ounce of this seeps through into the book. This is a journey into the couple’s future, about acceptance with the chance to shed the past and walk into new beginnings, and if that sounds a bit fanciful I don’t mean it to, but all the ‘de’ words... desolation, despondency, depression, despair, are slowly transformed into all the ‘re’ words...renewal, reaffirmation, redemption.
Whilst that future may be uncertain the couple head into it with hope and optimism, The Salt Path a testament to their own resilience and a book that will give strength to anyone who feels their life is under the cosh for whatever reason. That aside I’m never taking a bath or shower for granted ever again and, like Raynor, I too find that the minute you nip behind a bush for a comfort break every dog walker in Christendom will appear over the horizon.
Welded to the book from start to finish, I trod every step of the way with Raynor and Moth and wish them much success and happiness for the future... this book has to be a shoo-in for The Wainwright Prize short list for starters, and if you have read or plan to read The Salt Path please do share your thoughts in comments.